BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS
15, 2007: The U.S. Navy and the nuclear weapons industry are in a struggle over
a proposed new warhead design for the navy's sea-launched Trident D5 ballistic
missiles. This would involve replacing 3,000 W76 warheads that currently equip
336 missiles. This project would cost about $100 billion. The navy would prefer
to build more nuclear submarines. That includes both Virginia class SSN attack
subs, and replacements for the current Ohio class. Since the Ohios are expected
to serve into the 2020s (they entered service in the 1980s and 90s), the more
immediate need is for more Virginias. These 7,800 ton boats cost over $2
billion each. The navy wants at least fifty of them, to replace the aging Los
Angeles class boats. The navy needs subs more than it needs new warheads. But
the companies and organizations that build and maintain nuclear warheads want
the work. Which is more essential?
case for a new warhead is that this would provide a nuclear weapon that is more
reliable, less likely to go off by accident, cheaper to maintain and more
difficult to use if one is stolen by terrorists. The navy maintains that the
current W76 warheads, produced between 1972 and 1987, are adequate. The
W76s are old, but like any piece of expensive machinery, they are carefully
maintained. Parts wear out and are replaced. Most importantly, this warhead has
been tested. So we are sure that a W76 will explode when ordered to. Because of
a 1992 treaty, nuclear weapons may no longer be tested, even underground. The
new warhead would have to be "tested" via simulation. That is not a major
obstacle. Simulation of complex systems is now quite common, and reliable. It's
one of those unseen technologies that make life so much better for everyone.
The nuclear weapons designers, however, believe they have discovered several
flaws in the W76 design, things that could be eliminated with a new warhead,
even one that will never actually be detonated.
are two other factors, that don't get mentioned as much in this debate. First,
the labs and manufacturers who design and build nuclear warheads would like the
work. Times have been tough for the nuclear weapons crowd since the Cold War
ended in 1991. Since then, several treaties have been signed that reduce the
American nuclear arsenal. Thus it is bad politics to try and get lots of money
for new warheads. This is especially true because most people would like for
their to be even fewer warheads. It's the old debate over "how many warheads do
you need to get the job done." The U.S. currently has 7,000 nuclear warheads.
There are another 8,000 out there (most of them Russian). Over 15,000 warheads
have been taken out of service in the last fifteen years. The U.S. and Russia
had so many because both nations had developed tactics that included attempting
to knock each others land based missile silos out of action. Any exchange of
that many warheads, even if only ten percent of them actually went off, would
have destroyed Eurasia and North America. Those tactics are no longer popular,
thus you only need a few hundred warheads to pose a credible nuclear threat.
The U.S. and Russia have agreed to get try and get each of their warhead
inventories down to 2,000 or fewer.
getting $100 billion for a new generation of warheads is a long shot. That
doesn't mean that the nuclear weapons producers don't have business.
Maintaining existing warheads costs over a billion dollars a year. That
includes money needed for maintaining and upgrading facilities, as well as work
on the warheads themselves, and research and development of maintenance
requirements and techniques. Nukes are still a big business. But they are not
likely to get a lot bigger.